The Guitarist's Guitarist
One of the most influential guitarists in Rock History was born Frederick Lincoln Wray in Dunn, North Carolina on the second day of May in 1929. His Shawnee Indian mother had to beg the doctors not to kill her son even though the childbirth could have been her death. The prongs used to pull him out of his mother Link attributes to causing his slow learning. It did not help that he was very ill as a child, especially with a bad case of measles.
Son of a Son of a Preacher Man
His preacher grandfather who lived to 113, was imprisoned when he was 96 for non support. Link's father also followed that ministry path, though he was a wreck from WWI shell shock. Link thought he had one upped Elvis and his poor white upbringing with his indigenous poverty. His first guitar lessons were from a Barnum and Bailey Circus worker named Hambone who saw the 8 year-old kid attempting to play a Maybell guitar. This blues player showed him slide tuning, and he dug it.
He started working when he was 10, they all needed money, and Indians had it hard in the South. He and his father wound up in Portsmouth, Virginia in 1944 to work the shipyards. There he saw the Phelps Brothers and paid the country band to allow him to play with them. He was in the Army for the Korean War, and contracted tuberculosis then, even having a lung removed.
He moved with brothers, Vernon and Doug, with their group Lucky Wray and the Palomino Ranch Hands to Washington DC to record an EP. In 1955 they recorded with Starday. But, the reason he developed his dragged out style of chording in an instrumental style was due to his TB leaving an inability to do vocals. Because he specialized in just playing, and not singing, he became like his inspiration Chet Atkins, as well as to Merle Travis. But what made Rock history is when he wanted to deliberately be unique, and separate himself from those, as the Lovin' Spoonful 'Nashville Cats' "Clean as Country Waters" licks. Years later he mentioned to Frank Zappa how hard and long it took him to learn to play the guitar, having to give up on learning fast Tal Farlow jazzy type riffs. When Zappa said it was easy for him, Link had to say that was because he did not have the brain, while Frank did. It does not matter, because the way Link played down the fret board he basically is the daddy of the power chord.
The Gang's All Here
His recording of that drawn-out-vibrating stomp, "Rumble" in 1958 on Cadence caused this number twenty release to become banned first in Boston, and then other on some stations based on a fear of gang violence connotations. (Remember West Side Story's "...We're gonna rumble tonight!" Knife fighting in the streets). It actually helped fuel sales of the record. Played on Dick Clark's American Banstand on Saint Patrick's Day, it got the attention it deserved. When he performed live, he would wear what became his trademark black leather jacket. Marlon Brandos The Wild Ones did not help this image. Supposedly at this time Bob Dylan had gone to see Link Wray when they were in his area. They switched to Epic label and their driving, "Rawhide" made it to number twenty-three on the charts, though one source says sixteen. But, indeed, it was the leather and motorcyle greasers that loved it. As a result of the paranoia all the record companies were running scared, and the boys were forced to do over-produced, non-threatening, non-rock numbers like, "Danny Boy." Getting sick of that square crap, they produced their own record, "Jack the Ripper," on their Rumble Records label which in turn suffered a premature death. This cut can be heard on the Richard Gere vehicle soundtrack, Breathless. Later, some problems developed between Link and Vernon, who was their manager. The green-eyed monster prompted Vernon, who died in 1979, to take tapes and destroy many of them. This haunted Link to the present where he lost many royalties, including his first hit, "Rumble."
Ok in the UK
The Moon Men and the Spiders, one of their names used on Britain's Swan Records were followed by troublesome times in the 70's for Link. But the punk rockers were discovering him.
Help from One's Friends
After his heralded but sales-poor self-titled solo album, and problems selling singles; he joined up with Robert Gordon on a Rock-a-Billy endeavor. Gordon had been with the punk band Tuff Darts in NYC. After recording with Gordon in the 70's, one memorable cut was, "Red Hot." He had his own 3 track recording setup in his home, and he continued to become a do-it-yourselfer. Drum machines aided him while he resumed his own cutting wax into the 90's. He played with the late great Danny Gatton, The Jordanaires, and dozens others.
Great instrumentals in Link Wray's repertoire and discography include:
His Album Releases:
- Link Wray and the Wraymen; Edsel (1960)
- Jack the Ripper; Swan (1963)
- Sings and Plays; Vermillion (1964)
- Link Wray; Polydor (1971)
- Rock 'n' Roll Rumble; Charly (1972)
- There's Good Rockin Tonight; Union Pacific (1973)
- Beans and Fatback; Virgin (1973)
- Rockin' and Handclappin'; Epic (1974)
- The Link Wray Rumble; Polydor (1974)
- Interstate 10; Caroline (1975)
- Stuck in Gear; Virgin (1976)
- Bullshot; Visa (1979)
- Yesterday and Today; Record Factory (1979)
- Good Rockin' Tonight; Ace (1982)
- Live at the Paradiso; Visa (1982)
- The Original Rumble; Ace (1989)
- The Swan Demo's 64; Hangman(1989)
- Walkin' with Link; Epic/Legacy (1992)
- Indian Child; Sony (1993)
- Born to Be Wild: Live in the USA (1987)
- Mr. Guitar; Norton (1995)
- Shadowman; Hip-O (1997)
- Walking Down a Street Called Love (Live); Cleopatra (1997)
- Missing Links, Vol. 4: Streets of Chicago; Norton (1997)
- Barbed Wire; Ace (2000)
Besides those labels, Rhino and other complilation specialists have released different combos of those.
The Root of all Bad (translate Good)
One can hear this hard-edged sound influence in other groups, for example: The Kingsmen, (not to be confused with the southern gospel quartet), as heard in "Louie, Louie" (pronounced loo-wee loo-eye); and the Kinks early work, especially: "You Really Got Me." Even the Beatles' first hits, like "I Wanna Hold Your Hand" demonstrated full volume through the amplifiers. But they changed, and Link did not.
This sound is made by way overdriven, originally tube amplifiers. Link's buzzed more than even James Burton's work like Elvis' "Jailhouse Rock". This "bad" blusey sound was brought to its ultimate zenith when the large concert halls were filled with the big sound, this was how Cream and Led Zeppelin evolved to what became heavy rock and metal's grandaddy. Link looked back at how he did not have huge Marshall amps like them, but little Silvertones, which were lucky to put out 30 watts. He also preferred off-brand electric guitars. Pete Townshend of the Who, a band legendary for having tons of equipment, praises: "He is the King; if it hadn't been for Link Wray and "Rumble," I would never have never picked up a guitar." Likewise, Neil Young said he was the only one he would want to see if he could time travel backwards.
The fuzz-tone generated by distortion pedals like in Canned Heat's, "On the Road Again," or in Norman Greenbaum's "Spirit in the Sky" is not exactly the same sound, but a way of trying to duplicate it on "clean, probably solid-state amplifiers. From plug-in, or built-in distortion, phlangers and phase shifters, today's guitarist has an unbelievable amount of sound modifying devices. Computers and other integrated circuitry have digitally taken the role of what used to be done analog. In his day, just like Chicago bluesmen, it came from pushing the limits on the existing systems, either by the amp, and, or the speakers.
From the "Guitar Preacher"
Link Wray was a wild boy, even considered himself a hippie, but he always kept the faith, he would never do drugs because of his religion.
There was an album made later, (in the '70's) which contained a little known song, "Fire and Brimstone", where he plays predominately slide guitar, and sings:
I saw Fire,
Fire and Brimstone
On December September 28, 1995 at "De Gigant", Apeldoorn, the Netherlands, Wray returned to touring with the Ace-Men, thanks to Rudi Protrudi of the Fuzztones. This old man of rock was strutting his stuff from Germany to London, and all throughout Europe.
On MPR in 1997 Link gave an enlightening interview. He gave the backstory to how he played Texas Swing type music, albeit a bit heavier than others. Radio DJ Milt Grant, who also ran a dance show in Fredericksburg, Virginia, once commented on Doug Wray's good and loud drumming. It was on his show in 1957, down there where he was to play backup for the Diamonds when he inadvertently came up with the inspiration for his first big hit, "Rumble". They asked Link if he knew "The Stroll," to which he said he did not; but his brother Doug said he knew the beat, and proceeded to lay out a lethargic boom, boomidy boom. Then Link's featured guitar (no vocals) kicked in with his droning chords amplified and distorted by the PA mike. The kids all yelled for him to keep on, bypassing the hapless Diamonds, the main event. The rest is history as Milt Grant got them into studio, and the thing was a hit. Concerning the following release "Rawhide," he saw Dick Clark rate it a 98, and it bulleted up the charts. Link mentioned that he could not duplicate a sound he had from one amplifier and its growl, so he poked a pencil into the tweeter, not the main, speaker of it. Duane Eddy told him how he wished his "Rebel Rouser" could sell half as many records as Link's first hit. Link humbly commented that they had different methods, Eddy using single strings, while he utilized chords. He lamented how after "Jack the Ripper" was released, and the Beatles came on the scene, his kind of good ole boy rock was dead. He would not have any part of the new psychedelic music, he might do some beer onstage, but he would never do any of the "Devil's Candy." Through the late sixties and beyond he played in some little club in Maryland, doing covers of the oldies he loved best.
In 2002, you could have checked your listings for the 72 year old legend when he was making live appearances in your town. That year my stepson told me that he was coming to the Tampa, Florida area, and earthen said was coming maybe in July to Austin, Texas.
It was announced on Monday, November 21st, 2005 that Link Wray had died at age 76, but the news source said the date was not not known as the sad final event happened during the week before in Copenhagen, Denmark. He had married a Danish woman, Julie Povlsen, and moved there in 1978. He was and buried on the 21st in nearby Christianshavn. This was the island where Hans Christian Anderson dwelt. On November 23 MPR gave the date of his death as November 5, 2005. He is survived by Olive and Oliver Wray.